Letter from Congo

To ease the struggles of their daily lives, the sapeurs of Congo look at their labels

Among crumbling buildings and dirt roads in Congo's capital Kinshasa, "sapeurs" sport labels from Gaultier, Cavalli, Versace, Mikaye and Dolce & Gabanna. Despite difficult living conditions, these devotees of high fashion often put what little money they have toward their look.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Thursday, March 11, 2010

KINSHASA, CONGO -- This vast central African nation is known for many things: the massive corruption of the late leopard-hat-wearing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, grinding poverty, a devastating conflict in the east. But it is worth noting that Congo is also home to a formidable cult of high fashion, as demonstrated by the scene at a rickety, sheet-iron pool hall here one recent Sunday.

It was a lackluster afternoon until a shiny maroon Mercedes pulled up, delivering a group of young men in clouds of cologne and ensembles of Gaultier, Cavalli and Issey Miyake.

"Labels! Labels!" yelled one of the pool players. "Show us the labels!"

"Versace!" answered Ukonda Pangi, 22, pointing to a rhinestone buckle as he strutted about like Mick Jagger. "Look! Look at this belt! That's Versace!"

Congo's fashion devotees call themselves "sapeurs," and at the moment, a group of them are attempting to revive a movement that has been in some decline in recent years, perhaps not coincidentally along with Congo itself.

Last month, the men paraded in their best Guccis and Yamamotos to the grave of one of Congo's most famous sapeurs, laid flowers and declared a World Day of Sape. Their hope: to promote Congo's contributions to what people here call "the art of wearing," which is experiencing a rebirth in a country devastated by war and poverty.

"Clothing -- it's an important science in this human life on Earth," began the sapeur known as Papa Griffe. "It gives a person value."

Stories about the movement's origins vary, but the word "sapeur" comes from the French slang for clothes. Many trace the quasi-religious cult to a rebellion against the repression of Mobutu, who banned Western dress in favor of a dreary, Maoist-style number called the abacost. In the late 1970s, famed rumba singers such as Papa Wemba developed a following by challenging those edicts with a flair for haute-couture spectacle that rivaled Cher.

This was partly a marketing ploy. But as the country sank deeper into ruin and war, being a sapeur became a grandiose escape, a way of transforming broken-down sidewalks into so many floodlighted runways, and a jobless 18-year-old into a persona of his own choosing.

"I am," began Yannick Kindingo, who wore what looked like a post-modern kilt by Miyake, "the twin of the president of the republic, and of Papa Wemba. I'm a philosopher of sape."

He sat in a white plastic chair outside the bar, near a smog-sickened palm tree and an open sewer. As the sun set, his colleagues, who had just come from filming a commercial, struck theatrical poses. Guy Matondo whacked the heel of his shoe with a golf club to show the quality of the sole. Firenze Luzolo, 26, flashed the white label of his worn, black Y-3 suit, which appeared authentic.

"We know," Luzolo said, referring to their sense of style. "We are knowers."

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